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How to Chop Firewood: Tools, Techniques, & Troubleshooting Basics

Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.

Everyone loves a good wood fire! Here's some of my chopping work.

Everyone loves a good wood fire! Here's some of my chopping work.

Chopping Firewood the Old-Fashioned Way

Chopping wood is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Maybe that sounds a little odd, maybe not, but if you want to know how to chop just about any type of wood, no matter the issues, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve chopped a lot of wood and learned a few tricks along the way.

This article will teach you (almost) everything you need to know about chopping firewood by hand, whether you’re dealing with smaller branches or huge rounds cut from the trunks of great trees. Read on to learn how to accomplish such firewood-chopping-feats as “taking its heart,” “going in the back door,” and “speaking to it.” And you thought we were just going to talk about splitting wood.

Splitting or Chopping Wood?

Splitting and chopping firewood are the same thing, really. I prefer to call it "chopping" because I think of "splitting" wood as a more controlled, intentional process, like splitting a log for fence rails. So in this article, I’ll be using the verb "chop."

What You'll Need to Chop Wood

Eight-Pound Splitting Maul

For chopping wood by hand, anything less than a six-pound splitting maul is, in my opinion, a waste of your time. Small axes are good for small pieces of wood, but a heavier axe will get the job done faster. Forget those three-pound axes they sell at the hardware store—if you’re up against a piece of green ash, twisted elm, or branchy locust, all you’re going to do is get that thing stuck. What you really want is an eight-pound splitting maul. Remember: “Eight is great.” Any more than eight and you’ll run out of steam. Any lighter, and you may not have what you need. This is my all-time favorite splitting maul.

Several Metal Wedges

Have more than one. Sometimes, if you’re dealing with something like a three-foot round of oak, you’ll get one wedge stuck and have to free it by opening the wood with a second wedge. Sometimes you’ll lose track of one of your wedges, drop it in the brush, or leave it in a stump you forgot about, so for best results have at least three.

Chopping Block or Chopping Stump

Usually one of the big rounds from the tree you are working on turning into firewood will work just fine. Nothing fancy, just something stable that will raise the pieces of wood off the ground and save your back a little. Chopping directly into the ground, even into soft dirt, will damage the edge of your axe, hatchet, or splitting maul.

Eye Protection

Safety goggles, or at least sunglasses, are a good thing to have when you are doing wedge work. Hitting the metal head of your eight-pounder against the metal wedge with the kind of force you’re going to be generating can cause little metal shards to fly. I know it’s not very manly to wear goggles while you’re chopping wood, but I insist: When beating metal on metal, wear goggles. I had a sliver of metal wedge fly into my face once (luckily not into my eyes) and I tell you, it didn’t feel very good and scared me into wearing sunglasses.

Long Pants and Close-Toed Shoes

Don’t chop firewood in shorts and/or sandals—that would just be silly. Wear long pants and sturdy, close-toed shoes.

Before You Begin

Know what type of wood you are dealing with.

I’m not saying you have to be a forester or an arborist to chop firewood, but it really does help to know which species of tree you’re working with. Is it a hardwood or a soft wood like pine? What do you want it for—indoor or outdoor fires? If you want it for your indoor fireplace or woodstove, it should be a hardwood. If you haven’t chopped a lot of wood in your lifetime yet, you’ll soon learn from experience that different types of trees yield wood that is different when it comes to splitting it and using it for firewood.

Determine what size logs you need.

Fourteen to 18 inches for a woodstove or fireplace is usually good. If you’re chopping for outdoor fires, like campfires or big bonfire parties, the length is really up to you. It’s nice when it’s short enough to manage, though. And the truth is that shorter lengths generally split easier than longer ones.

Cut through knots and branches.

Speaking of cutting your wood, when you do so, do yourself a favor and cut through some of those knots and branches in your log(s). Chopping a knotty piece of wood is easier if the knots have already been damaged by a saw.

Practice to improve your accuracy.

If you’ve never swung an axe or a splitting maul before, then try some practice swings to improve your accuracy. One thing I’ve learned for sure is that being accurate is half the battle.

  1. To practice aiming, take a piece of wood, set it on your block, and draw a line in it with the sharp edge of your splitting maul.
  2. Now, line up your swing by touching the blade to the mark, square up your legs, keep your eyes fixed where you want to hit, raise your splitting maul directly over your head (never to one side or the other!) and pull down, bending at the knees and using your legs for power.
  3. Did you hit the mark? Keep working at it until you get fairly accurate. My advice about chopping firewood will be basically useless to you if you can’t strike at least in the general vicinity of where you're aiming.

Shouldn't I Use an Axe to Split Wood?

I don't use or recommend an axe. I prefer the maul, which is more like a wedge with a long handle. The head of the maul is heavy and designed to do more of the work for you than an axe would, and this is especially important when you've got a lot of wood to chop. They come in different weights, and I recommend using an eight-pounder.

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Even my blue heeler, Honeybear, loves to hang around a fire!

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How to Chop Wood

For most small-diameter pieces of wood (like cherry or sassafras, or branches off of various types of large trees), this method will work.

  1. Select a piece of wood and place it squarely on your chopping block, if you have one, so that it won’t fall over. In most cases, wood splits more easily if you go from the “top.” What I mean by that is that every piece of wood, whether from a branch or a trunk, has a fat end and a thinner end. The “top” is the thinner end; the “backdoor” is the fatter or wider end. The reason wood splits more easily from the top has to do with grain tension. I like to think of chopping firewood as taking apart the tree, and it needs to be done (usually) in the opposite way that the tree grew. Now there are instances where you have to go in the backdoor, but we’ll discuss that later. So, place your piece of wood top side up, fat-end down.
  2. Take a look at the end grain of the piece of wood in question. The end grain is the inner part of the log that has been exposed by your cut—it’s where you are able to count the growth rings. So, looking at the end grain, you will probably see at least one “check" or crack. You want to take advantage of where the wood has checked, if you can. If there is more than one check, choose the widest and longest. Let’s assume you have a relatively straight piece of, say, black cherry, nine inches in diameter, with a check that goes through the heart (“the heart” is the center of the end grain – the smallest ring – the oldest part of the piece of tree you are working with, and the center of grain tension). You’ll want to aim for that check with your eight-pounder.
  3. Face the wood, line up your swing by placing the blade of your eight-pounder over the check, keep your back straight, raise your splitting maul directly over your head (not to either side—you will hurt your back and won’t generate nearly as much power!), and pull the splitting maul downwards, thrusting it into the wood, bending at the knees and using your legs to generate power. Swing your maul. If you land your blow square in the check of our imaginary piece of cherry, all other factors unconsidered, the round should fly apart into two pieces of firewood.

There, that was easy, right? Well, if you really are splitting cherry, then it probably was easy. But even cherry can have its challenges, to say nothing of oak, locust, black walnut, maple, elm, or the dreaded sycamore.

How to Chop Big Rounds of Wood

Here's how to manage a big round, maybe a trunk section of an oak or a maple, four feet in diameter. I classify a “big round” of wood as a section of trunk or branch two feet in diameter or greater. There are fewer species of tree that grow to have huge trunk diameters. Just to name a few, there are oak, ash, maple, poplar, black walnut, sycamore, and willow. As far as firewood for heating is concerned, of the types of wood I just listed, I would only toil away to get firewood from a big round of oak, ash, maple, or black walnut (if I was desperate, as black walnut doesn’t throw a lot of heat).

When dealing with a big round, the process is basically the same regardless of the type of wood.